Dec. 2009: In mid-November, I visited French artist Benjamin Swaim at his studio at Usine Chapal in Montreuil. We talked about 40 Guns, his recent project and publication with the Maison Rouge, Paris, and his participation in “Time is a Sausage,” a group show currently on display at Domobaal, London. We looked at works from Salembô, a series of large-scale brightly colored abstract canvases, and a series of abstract paintings in black and white, Les sculptures de ma mère. As we talked about the images, Swaim seemed to be informed by philosophy and human behavior, as well as by the visual legacy of Abstract Expressionism. A juxtaposition of European ideology and American aesthetics, Swaim’s work is unique, and not only because he is one of the few French artists still brave enough to make paintings. Swaim also showed me his most recent works, Phénix la vie sexuelle, Belgique and Berlin, series that he has realized through the appropriation of found images. Carrying the same enigmatic charge as his canvases, these works mark a logical, and exciting, development in his practice.
Benjamin Swaim, Salembô-Schreber, 2008, Huile sur toile , 220 x 240 cm; Courtesy of the artist
Lillian Davies: You said that your background as a student is in philosophy, rather than exclusively in studio art. How do your studies inform your practice?
Benjamin Swaim: I studied Philosophy at the University Saint-Denis and did my master’s degree in 1993 on Gilles Deleuze’s aesthetic, under Jacques Rancière. My second thesis was on Schelling. I still read contemporary and classic philosophy because it tends to stimulate my work and to inform certain contemporary issues. On the other hand, I prefer not to theorize about my own paintings.
LD: You mention Freud when speaking about several different series, especially Salembô and Les sculptures de ma mère, could you tell me more about your interest in Freud, and how his ideas are specifically relevant to these two series of paintings?
BS: I am convinced, as Freud and Bataille were, that sexual desire is at the heart of artistic practice: fetishism, partial objects, slip of the pen, regression, anality in the act of painting, etc. I think of art as a sexual investigation, a question addressed to origins, origin as posed by, of course, the canvas by Courbet.
Benjamin Swaim, Time is a Sausage, Installation view; Courtesy of the artist
LD: Which artists, including writers or filmmakers, do you see as influences, or references, in your practice?
BS: What appeals to me is the mixing of the serious and the ludic, the grotesque and the tragic, beauty and ugliness, mixing good taste with the bad. Working in this vein I would cite artists such as Picasso, Malcom Morley, Picabia, Guston, Peter Saul, Gasirowski, early Cezanne, Polke; such filmmakers as Fellini, Pasolini, Ferreri, Bunuel, Michael Powel, Hitchcock. And I love Flaubert, Kafka, Becket.
LD: You showed works from the series 40 Guns, Le Sphinx and David & Goliath at Maison Rouge in 2007, and have a drawing from the series now on display at Domobaal. What are your references for these series, and most importantly how do you deal with the references in these works? Are you distancing yourself from your chosen references, reinterpreting them or reducing them?
BS: The Forty guns series was named after Samuel Fuller’s black and white western, which I saw while I was working on the drawings. I started them when I was still painting romantic and somewhat abstract horizon lines, within the tradition of Rothko. Drawing figures that seemed to have escaped from comic books and creating sexuality-charged and trangressive images was a way to move away from those landscape paintings. In David and Goliath I incorporated severed heads in the depiction of scatological scenes. They were painted while American hostages were being decapitated in the Middle East, though I only made that connection long afterward… Both Forty Guns and David and Goliath were presented in book form, as artist’s books, and I view them as a contemporary retelling of the story of Oedipus. It was indeed a way of settling a score with my father and of assuming an American heritage.
The works of others often aid me in the elaboration of a series. In citing them in my titles I orient the viewer’s eye and in a certain manner I reinterpret the quotes I cite while wringing their necks. (Deleuze doesn’t hesitate to talk about his interpretation of the history of philosophy as a kind of “buggery.”)
LD: Why have you chosen painting, as opposed to other media, to realize your work as an artist?
BS: I do not a priori exclude any medium but the medium that really grabs me, still today, is painting. That’s where I find my release, my pleasure. The fact that this medium has been largely treated with contempt in France for the last thirty years provides an additional motivation.
LD: In many of your paintings, there is an aspect of "repentirs," manifested in re-painting. Could you explain this idea, and how it is important to your paintings, not only in the visible texture of the works, but also in the psychological depth?
BS: The “repentirs,” or pentimenti, are the subtle differences of texture and reflectivity that are manifested by figures that one has covered over. It’s, if you want, an under-image coming through like the ghost of an earlier figure. It is an unintentional but clearly important aspect of my work; it’s at the same time the trace of previous strata and, to use a psychoanalytic term, the “return of the repressed.” That soils my surface textures in enabling the background to come forward. That soiling is at the same time revolting and pleasing to me. It’s the mixture that interests me.
LD: Your most recent work, the found images that you have over painted in black, seems to mark an important transition to the appropriation of existing visual material. What triggered this new development in your practice? Where do you think this new development will lead?
Benjamin Swaim, phénix, 2008- 2009, encre de chine sur papier imprimé, 56 x 116 cm; Courtesy of the artist
BS: This new body of work is created with books from which I have removed the binding in order to extract the double pages which were formerly invisible. I then partially cover up the pages with china ink to isolate certain details, often in geometrical, but handmade painted structures. Here, I am thinking of the opening credits of The Boston Strangler, where a series of fragmentary images appear as vignettes against a black background. My new work is concerned with death, especially the Phenix series where houses end up looking like tombs.
At first, using existing visual material wasn’t satisfying because so many artists, and some of whom I admire greatly, have been doing it, a commonplace of contemporary art where it seemed very hard to succeed in doing something new and strong. But I think you have to follow an idea when it knocks on your door. With this work I really don’t know where it’s leading, but I am following the thread.
ArtSlant would like to thank Benjamin Swaim for his assistance in making this interview possible.